As both the flagship title for the newly launched PlayStation VR2 and the next installment of the acclaimed Horizon series, Horizon: Call of the Mountain has massive expectations to overcome. For many, it could be their first experience with the franchise – or even with virtual reality itself – and for others, it’s a litmus test for how a franchise they love can be adapted to a new medium. For the latter, Call of the Mountain is a mixed bag, but viewed solely as a big-budget VR experience, the game delivers one of the finest titles available for Sony’s new headset.
As mentioned in our review, the PlayStation VR2 is arriving at a precarious time. VR is here, there’s many options available at all price points, and there’s a fully formed culture and ecosystem to wade through. The strength of the platform will be what differentiates it and with Sony, that’s generally its first-party titles. The Horizon series, whose last entry Forbidden West was a 2022 game of the year contender, seems like a perfect fit. It’s a gorgeous open world adventure saga where you kill robot dinosaurs with a bow. How could it go wrong?
While some parts of the Horizon experience lend themselves perfectly to VR (climbing, bow-based combat) the fully open-ended exploration of the main series does not. The “flat” series on PlayStation 4 and 5 consists of open world action/adventure games that sport 40+ hour campaigns steeped in collectathons, location discovery, and tons (and tons) of travel. While it could be emulated in the way some titles have – take the VR update to Skyrim for instance – as a built-for-VR experience, some concessions were likely to be made. That begins with a major narrowing of scope.
Call of the Mountain is primarily a linear experience, shifting perspective from third-person to first-person POV for obvious reasons. The new perspective changes much about how the game feels, but to its benefit, it pushes players to explore the environment more by default.
And what an environment. Gameplay aside, Call of the Mountain is one of the best-looking virtual reality games on the market. The world of Horizon has always been lush, filled with sprawling, colorful vistas that celebrate the beauty of nature in a world 1,000 years removed from modern civilization. In VR, players can lose themselves staring off into the distance, mulling over every flowing leaf, waterfall, and sunbeam.
The game takes full advantage of the PlayStation 5 to produce visuals nearly on par with what you’d find on higher end PCVR rigs – if not fully reaching those lofty highs. This is the type of game where bystanders are likely to pile into the room (unbeknownst to the player) to marvel at the surprising fidelity on screen. (The recurring phrase from the Rolling Stone staff wandering into playtests? “I can’t believe how good this looks.”)
The visuals help mask some of the linearity of the game, which primarily amounts to being dropped off at the start of a level and traversing various locales (often ascending portions of mountainous terrain) through walking and climbing. Climbing is paramount to the Horizon experience, and it’s honestly easy to forget just how much time in the main series is spent spamming the jump button to rapidly ascend mountains and walls, so it doesn’t feel entirely out of place.
It’s the ratio that’s off, with scripted sequences and limited combat encounters punctuating what is often a game mostly about climbing. Despite this, said climbing is often thrilling. Utilizing a number of tools from pickaxes, hook shots, and ropecasters, the variety of ways to traverse and the tension created by suspending players thousands of feet in the air with actual thought required on how to progress is enough to leave some players weak in the knees. If one were to reduce the game to just a “climbing simulator,” it’d still be the most enjoyable one there is. But there is more.
There’s robot dinosaurs. Yes, part of the splendor of the Horizon games is its ludicrous setting. Set roughly 1,000 years after the downfall of humanity, nature has taken back the earth. Surviving humans live in tribal communities, and everything old is new again. Except the primary threat to humanity (other than themselves) are robotic wildlife that have become part of the ecosystem. It’s too much convoluted sci-fi nonsense to describe if you haven’t played the other games, but suffice to say, it results in a VR game where you can fight a lumbering mechanized T-Rex (dubbed Thunderjaw), who’s armed with laser-guided missiles. You just have a bow and arrow. It’s exhilarating.
Much like the main series, the combat loop requires players to target specific areas on the enemy’s body to chip away at armor, reveal weak points, and turn the tides of battle one beleaguered bow-string pull at a time. Combat can be frantic, with multiple ammunition types to manage and rapid dodges and strafing to initiate, and all of it depends on the player’s ability to pantomime pulling arrows from a quiver and firing the bow in real time.
It can be a lot and surprisingly taxing if you’re unaccustomed to the physicality of VR. The immersion is amplified by the stellar haptic feedback of PSVR2’s controllers and headset, which serve not just to quake as dino-missiles erupt around you, but also increase tension (literally) as you draw the bow to full extension, waiting for the perfect shot to line up. Here too, is where the PSVR2’s eye-tracking comes into play, as players aren’t just reliant on the aiming with their (virtual) hands, but with their eyes as the headset’s internal sensors match the sweet spot between what players feel like they’re aiming at and what they’re actually seeing. It might sound like a lazy aim assist, but in practice it feels revolutionary – an empowering nexus of sensory control that negates much of the cumbersome issues that can plague VR shooters.
Narratively, the game lives outside of the main storyline of the series’ two main entries and DLC. Players embody Ryas, a member of the Shadow Carja clan and an entirely new protagonist for the story. Of course, you will eventually encounter series lead Aloy (Ashley Burch), who plays a bit part in the overall passing of the torch. It’s very much a standalone adventure that serves as a solid introduction to the world for newbies and a satisfying expansion to the lore for fans.
Much of the criticism toward the game is primarily based on existing expectations. Call of the Mountain is expected to be the flagship launch title for a new platform. It’s expected to be a massive AAA game based on a successful franchise. It’s expected to be that thing – that killer app that will draw people to the PSVR2.
But in many ways, it doesn’t live up to those expectations. It’s linear, with an off-putting balance of climbing sim to combat, and it provides minimal exploration in the way that fans would expect. All said, it’s still an exhilarating audiovisual experience that both builds on an existing IP and showcases many of the device’s core strengths and innovations. If this is the foundation for Sony’s future in VR, then there’s a lot to be excited for on the horizon.
Horizon: Call of the Mountain is available now for PlayStation VR2. PlayStation 5 required.